President Obama added new urgency on gun violence Wednesday by announcing a White House-led effort to craft proposals by January aimed at addressing what he called “the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day.”
Vice President Joe Biden will lead the interagency task force, pulling together cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and leaders of outside organizations and then sending a proposal to Congress in a matter of weeks. The focus will not be just on access to firearms – particularly semiautomatic weapons – and high-capacity ammunition magazines, but also on mental health care, school safety, and law enforcement. The effort comes in the wake of last Friday’s massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn, which killed 26 people, including 20 children.
“This is not some Washington commission,” Mr. Obama said, speaking from the White House briefing room. “This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now.”
By requesting speedy action, Obama is playing a game of beat the clock. Mass shootings have become a somewhat regular feature of life in America, and if the past is any guide, cries of outrage quickly subside as other policy priorities rise to the top. The “fiscal cliff,” immigration reform, energy policy – all will compete for attention in Obama’s second term.
Much of Wednesday’s press conference, in fact, was dominated by questions on Obama's fiscal cliff negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, aimed at preventing automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that will go into effect Jan. 1 if they cannot agree. The "commission" comment on gun violence carried some irony, given that the president’s lack of enthusiasm for the recommendations of his 2010 deficit commission have helped put America on the edge of that metaphorical cliff.
Four years into a presidency in which Obama has avoided taking on the wealthy, powerful gun lobby, gun violence is now competing for Washington’s attention. And on Wednesday, he seized upon the especially horrific nature of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy to make it a springboard for action.
In his remarks Wednesday, the president noted that Sandy Hook was not an isolated incident, but rather one in a seemingly endless drumbeat of shootings that kill more than 10,000 Americans a year.
“Since Friday morning, a police officer was gunned down in Memphis, leaving four children without their mother,” Obama said. “Two officers were killed outside a grocery store in Topeka. A woman was shot and killed inside a Las Vegas casino. Three people were shot inside an Alabama hospital. A 4-year-old was caught in a drive-by in Missouri and taken off life support just yesterday.”
His own hometown of Chicago has been especially plagued by gun violence, with children frequently caught in the cross-fire. But as president, Obama has not made reining in such violence a priority. Now, he says, he’s ready to act, regardless of the politics. And given his reelection last month, he has some breathing room to tackle such a fraught issue, in a society that values its freedoms. While some pro-gun Democrats in the Senate have now expressed support for gun-control legislation, key members of the Republican-controlled House are vowing to block any new restrictions on access to firearms.
Obama expressed hope that public opinion will matter. He referred to a “growing consensus” among Americans favoring a range of measures long on the agenda of gun-control advocates: banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and enacting laws that require background checks before all gun purchases, including those that take place at gun shows and as other private transactions.
“It won’t be easy, but that can't be an excuse not to try,” he said. “And I’m not going to be able to do it by myself.”
“If we're going to change things,” he added, “it's going to take a wave of Americans, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental-health professionals, and, yes, gun owners standing up and saying ‘enough’ on behalf of our kids.”
The last question of the press conference – asking, essentially, what took him so long to act on gun violence – put Obama on the defensive.
“I've been president of the United States, dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars,” he said. “I don't think I've been on vacation. And so, you know, I think all of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington.”
Obama will not have the stage to himself on the gun issue for long. On Friday, the National Rifle Association holds a news conference. The battle will be joined.